How VIP cinema experiences are drawing back a crowd in the UAE
It is no secret that despite a few record-breaking blockbusters – and the enduring popularity of Star Wars and superhero movies – cinema attendances have been in decline in recent years.
What is less well-known is that profits in many global markets have been generally on the increase for much of that time, thanks to the simple mathematics of increased spend per person.
Some of this can be accounted for by rising ticket prices in general, and surcharges for recent trends such as 3-D, Imax and “4-D” movies.
But there is also the rise in the past decade of “VIP” experiences, which allow cinemas to charge a hefty premium. In return, they woo audiences with exclusive features including high-end cuisine and personal service direct to your seat, which combines the concept of dinner and a movie into a single experience.
The UAE cinema market is already in a relatively strong position. Along with the region as a whole, it has largely bucked the global trend of declining or stagnant audiences.
The rise of the premium cinema experience has proven particularly popular here – no great surprise given the penchant among the population for luxury. The big surprise, perhaps, is that it did not arrive in the UAE sooner than 2007, when Vox Cinemas launched its Gold Cinema experience.
Cinema chains in this region had one big advantage over those in most other countries introducing premium services – while in much of the world existing cinemas had be ripped apart and remodelled to create VIP experiences, here they could often be included from the start in new cinemas being built. This also avoided the problem of convincing theatre owners to lose seats to make space for a premium service.
“When we pioneered the luxury premium seat to the cinema industry in 2008, the business model for what we were trying to sell didn’t seem to make sense,” Steve Simons, chief executive, of American company VIP Cinema Seating, told Film Journal last year.
“Exhibitors couldn’t resonate with, ‘You lose 50 per cent of your seats and increase your ticket sales by 80 per cent’. It’s very counterintuitive – but it’s factual.”
In the same Film Journal story, some cinema owners reported converted cinemas that had previously averaged 13 per cent capacity were now regularly sold out.
But the cinema chains insist it is not only about money.
“It’s all about what customers want, in the end,” says Debbie Stanford Kristiansen, the UAE chief executive of Novo Cinemas. “Whenever we look at a new location we do a lot of research. We run focus groups to identify our customer base and at the forefront it is driven by consumers.
“Certainly in the Gulf, luxury is being driven by customer desire. Our new flagship in Doha has seven VIP screens out of 19. In the European market you wouldn’t find that level, because it’s not so much what customers are demanding.”
Bosses at Vox Cinemas have similar views.
“Luxury is a big selling point in this region,” says senior marketing manager Ashleigh Potts. “People in this region tend to want the biggest and the best, and that’s what we think we’ve given them since we first pioneered the Vox Gold concept 10 years ago.”
Once luxury has become the norm, it is a constant challenge to keep up with customer demands.
“When we launched Gold we really reinvented ourselves and the whole experience, and that meant customer expectations increased too,” says Potts. “The food had to improve too, which ultimately led to our partnership with Gary Rhodes in Theatre With Rhodes.
“Once that standard was set we realised expectations had increased across the board, so we gave Gary a role in changing the Gold menu too – our ‘business class’, if you like, next to Theatre’s first class – but then standard-class menus had to increase. It’s a constant process.”
Potts says future developments could include Rhodes designing menus to suit specific films – British classics for a Bond movie, for example. The chef seems as enthused as the cinema chain by the challenge.
“We are trying to add another dimension to cinema, adding that extra bit of luxury to make people love the food every bit as much as the movie they watch,” Rhodes says.
With all the talk of luxury seats and gourmet menus, you could be forgiven for thinking that the actual film has diminished in importance. Not so, according to devotees.
“Interestingly, I’ve experienced that audiences in these luxury cinemas almost never use their phone for texting or calling compared to regular cinemas,” says filmmaker Faisal Hashmi of his luxury experiences. “I think it’s because they’ve paid substantially more for their right to see the film and begin to value the experience more, but it does work out for the benefit of people like me who want to be immersed into the experience.”
This undisturbed experience is also an advantage for Ahmed Mishash, who we spoke to after his visit to Theatre by Rhodes in Yas Mall.
“I love the privacy,” he says. “It’s not a whole row of seats, just two by two. That’s a real bonus for me.”
Yet with the rise of streaming services and increasingly affordable high-quality home-cinema technology, could the chains be shooting themselves in the foot by making people expect all the home comforts? The irony is not lost on Potts.
“That’s our real challenge, and why we have to keep improving” she says. “The real question is simply how do we convince people it’s worth leaving their homes to spend an evening with us?”
Updated: January 15, 2017 04:00 AM